Saturday, December 28, 2013


About a year ago I was called in to edit a video obituary on Nelson Mandela for BET (Black Entertainment Television) News. He was in the hospital and the world's attention was on South Africa. A few days later he emerged and went home and the world breathed a sigh of relief. On December 5th this year, I was called back to finish the job. "Madiba" as he was lovingly known in his country, was finally free. The long years spent on planet earth, most of them in torment, had come to an end. As President Obama pointed out, Nelson Rollhlahla Mandela now belonged to the ages. The long road traversed, had come to an end.

As a film editor I look at many hours of footage to condense it to the most essential elements. Moments that would inform, entertain and take the viewer on a journey of discovery and exploration in an effortless way. I guide the viewer's gaze and make the story flow with music and visual juxtaposition. And from the endless hours of footage, emerges a coherent story. What I gain in the process, is a wealth of knowledge and an insight that is perceptive and enriching.

While I sat in a dark edit room at 2 AM in Manhattan, watching the live feed of the memorial and funeral of Nelson Mandela coming in from South Africa, it placed me right in the moment in real time. I became a part of history in an infinitesimal sense. I was there grieving, celebrating, learning and enjoying the passing of a man who like many before him had left an indelible mark on the timeline of humanity.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, invincible and unbowed, his story became an international event. Very soon movies, documentaries and books began to be made about his life and the birth of a new nation (the latest one being "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom")  Western nations and leaders that called Mandela a terrorist and propped up his enemy, made him their hero. For Americans, especially Black Americans he became a personification of their own struggles. He joined the ranks of their hallowed leaders who fought to end the other Apartheid not too long ago. At the memorial service President Obama paid homage to his legacy by saying that his own ascent was partly inspired by Mandela's journey.

The defeat of an entrenched, oppressive and brutal Apartheid regime, and the emergence of a democratic nation based on tolerance, compromise and reconciliation, set an example for the world to appreciate and emulate. Mandela gained freedom at 71, and within a decade created a nation which in principle put aside retribution to create a society that would have a chance to grow and evolve in the long run. Unlike many other African leaders, some his friends, he relinquished power and allowed his colleagues to build upon his vision. With his departure that vision stands in the balance, as poverty among the majority black population ravages the nation and corruption grips the ruling class, and the fear of reprisals among the white population rises to the surface.

Revolutions, violent and non-violent, are not fought and won alone. Many die along the way, others sacrifice much if not more, but the "chosen ones" who see the big picture prevail, persevere and get immortalized. Nelson Mandela certainly fit that mold. His story is of fortitude and courage, his sacrifice makes his story that much more powerful. With out his colleagues Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani and other unnamed foot soldiers nothing could have been achieved. But it is the emergence of his voice of reason that bore fruit. Nelson Mandela's transformation from a  violent approach to a non-violent one, is a journey of not just self realization but of strategy and insight. While he did take lessons from his predecessors (Gandhi and King) his struggle was very different from theirs. His true genius lies in the fact that he negotiated and executed the demise of a regime from a place of incarceration and then followed through with his vision against the will of his compatriots and brothers in arms.

Those who become symbols of struggle and then freedom, run the risk of being deified. Mandela in his halcyon days made every effort to avoid that by openly reflecting on his personal failings, missteps and inadequacies. Despite his efforts he has joined the exclusive pantheon of the saintly. As time goes on his cult of personality will only grow. South Africa inaugurated an imposing statue of his likeness the very next day he was interred. In the million obituaries that were written and spoken, he was elevated to having an aura around him. In reality he was a man who saw the big picture and knew his place in time. He was a resilient man of strength and tenacity. As quoted in his favorite poem "Invictus" he was "the captain of his soul" but not as much a "master of his fate".

As the year comes to an end and we remember those who left their mark on the speck of humanity, his name will definitely lead the pack. Whether his legacy will influence people in power, only time will tell. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said "My life is my message" so is Madiba's . That is all. It is what it is.

Friday, November 22, 2013


On this day, half a century ago, three shots rang out in downtown Dallas, Texas. Time stood still, a president was dead and a nation was left in shock. A bright and cheerful Dealey Plaza turned chaotic, and the city of Dallas was scarred forever. A lone shooter and a rifle is all it took. Fifty years on, that day remains fresh in the minds of those who were old enough to grapple with the aftermath. For those of us who were born after, the story of John F. Kennedy has been seared via countless books, films, buildings and memorials. Much like the untimely deaths of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Salvador Allende, Patrice Lumumba and many others are mourned everyday, John F. Kennedy is remembered as a man who stood for universal values of peace, democracy, equality and human rights.

When assassinated, Kennedy had served just over a thousand days as president. In that short period he had captured the imagination of people all over. The three alphabets, JFK, came to symbolize someone larger than life. His youthfulness was seductive. He was the first president brought to the American living rooms via the mass medium of television and he knew how to use it to his advantage. There was an instant connection and the romance that emerged, lasts to this day. His charisma was enhanced by his wife, children and wardrobe and the whole package was endearingly branded "Camelot" for many Americans.

The 1950s were a very prosperous time in America. There was a respite from the wars and while Europe was rebuilding itself from the carnage, America was intact, and therefore had a lead. For the first time ever middle class families owned homes, cars and refrigerators. Schools, highways, shopping malls and libraries were being built at breakneck speed. Families had leisure time and extra money and wanted to be entertained. Movies, television, music and car companies all fed this thirst and a new America began to take shape. The suburbs were birthed and the cities were transformed. Kennedy sensed this shift and knew he could be the one to lead America into the sixties as a man of the times. So when he defeated Richard Nixon in a televised presidential debate (many concluded he lost in the radio version) he arrived on the scene. He was inaugurated on January 20th, 1961 to become the youngest, the first to be born of the century and the first Catholic president. His election was no land slide victory though, it was a photo finish. He won by 119,000 votes in the popular count.

Even though Kennedy was somewhat of an outsider to the style of politics of the time, his pedigree was as elite as elite can be. Born into a wealthy family one of nine children, his father Joseph Kennedy was a tough Irishman who wanted all his sons to be president. Harvard educated, with an impeccable war record, he had all that he needed to make a run for the highest office in the land. The Kennedy's, infamously had made their money during prohibition bootlegging liquor and since had multiplied their money to buy into power and privilege. Kennedy paid his dues as a politician by serving as a congressman for six years and a senator for seven and when the time came, was ready to fulfill his father's dream.

What made Kennedy appealing to many, was his youthful appearance. The sixties in America were just beginning to get interesting. Elvis Presley, Marlyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and others were in vogue. Hollywood was exploding and a sense of sexual liberation and freedom that would define a generation was laying its foundation. The young were setting the mood, away from the conservative and puritanical mode of the past. Kennedy fit right in and was certainly part of that milieu and consciously wanted to be associated with its evolution. He fraternized with the glitterati from Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Frank Sinatra to Walter Cronkite. He was known to be a serial philanderer, had questionable connections to the mafia and some of his adventures were quite un-presidential. He was lucky to have lived and died in a time when privacy was respected and the media was interested in only what mattered to the public at large.

Kennedy even today is the poster boy for the liberals as Ronald Reagan is to the conservatives. Kennedy certainly lifted the stature of the Democrats and single handedly steered the black vote solidly their way, which up until then was Republican. By coming to Martin Luther King's aid when he was arrested in Atlanta at a sit in, he became popular among African Americans who were in the thick of fighting for civil liberties. While Kennedy was perceived to stand for modern, liberal, secular values which many Democrats still harp about as the foundations of the party, in reality he was a moderate. In comparison to his brothers Ted and Bobby, he was borderline conservative. As a chief executive he was fiscally cautious and constrained. Even though the black population favored him, in reality he was hesitant and timid about civil rights, and frustrated many of the civil rights leaders until finally articulating his vision in June of 1963. When the Russians launched "Sputnik", the first satellite into space, it de facto triggered the space race, arms race and the cold war. In response it is often imagined that Kennedy was the one who dreamed of putting man on the moon to shame the Russians. But in fact he wanted to send astronauts to Mars and had to be talked out of it because it was impractical. Kennedy was perturbed by the cost of space exploration and actually said "Why should we spend that kind of dough to put man on the moon?" He even spoke to the Russian premier about ending the space race and establishing a joint Soviet-Russian partnership for a moon landing.

Despite all of it, in the short time Kennedy was president, he inadvertently lay the foundation for important things to come. He established the Peace corps, successfully steered out of a nuclear confrontation with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis, pushed for racial desegregation and women's rights and started the Vietnam war. His vice president and successor Lyndon Johnson, actually saw many of his plans bear fruit. He managed to pass the civil rights bill through congress despite monumental opposition. He landed the first man on the moon. Created programs such as food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid to tackle poverty, but took America deeper into the Vietnam war.

As we remember JFK on this day, his legacy and enigma is strong as ever among Americans, partly because like Elvis he died young and because the aura of his lineage still endures. As a testament to that, his daughter was recently appointed the Ambassador to Japan and despite individual failings and mishaps among family members, the weight of the Kennedy name is powerful and influential to this day.

If one were to visit the site of the assassination one is appalled by how small an area Dealey Plaza is and how close Lee Harvey Oswald was to the president when he fired the shots. The chances of him missing his target were very slim. Since that day Americans have wrestled with that reality, never finding satisfying and conclusive answers or never wanting to believe the official version. Conspiracy theories are abound and to this day keep a window open to a revelation. In 2017 the sealed Kennedy assassination papers will be released to the public and maybe then the suspicions will settle. Until then, movies will be made, like the new film opening this month titled  Parkland and more books will be written, as the Kennedy story still sells.

What Kennedy's assassination reveals, is that all men are mortal, no matter how mighty they are perceived. Presidents are ordinary people pushed into extraordinary positions. They are flawed like us and sometimes are good at what they do, for all of us. History paints their portrait for us to examine, but not to deify or distort.

In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said

"If a free society cannot help the many that are poor, it cannot save the few that are rich".

With 80% of the stocks on Wall Street owned by 5% of the population and the wealth of the Wal-Mart family equal to the bottom 30% of Americans, his words ring true louder than ever today. In some ways he is still a man of the times.

It is what it is.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Phones and Drones

President Obama swept into power beating all odds, riding on a wave of impressive support and enthusiasm. It was mainly a reaction to a dismal performance by the previous administration that had all but shredded the constitution in the name of security. President Obama promised change. A promise to restore America's standing in the world. A return to a value when a nation and its people would be judged for being fair, transparent and respectful of all those who are mighty and not so mighty. For that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. His early overtures were seen as historic and his nascent charismatic diplomacy was refreshing and filled many with pride. A sense of optimism filled the air. Today if one were to look back at his presidency, despite many accolades, two things stand out as controversial and contentious. The issues of Phones and Drones.

The promise that was offered to the American people, twice, was of real change. Which included an end to an indiscriminate and open ended "global war on terror". Torture as a policy would stop, and its most decisive and divisive symbol "Guantanamo Bay" would be shuttered for good. There would be transparancy and openness and George Bush's signature Patriot Act would be rolled back and America would adhere to principles of international law and human rights as the leader and police of the free world.

The ground wars have figuratively ended, but Guantanamo Bay remains open, invisible and marooned. The war on terror has taken to the skies in an ominous way, piloted by the president himself. Drone strikes in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan have escalated beyond measure. Yemen, seen as a fertile ground for terrorists has been a victim of the hi-tech executioner as well. And this week Somalia joined the club, when a car allegedly carrying "suspected Al-Shabab militants" was suddenly blown up. President Obama has earned the dubious destinction of becoming the first president to authorize more drone strikes than any before. Even his predecessor who brought drone warfare to the forefront, was allegedly weary of this technology. Drone warfare has sparked a new arms race. China and other countries are trying to manufacture or procure drones, while the rules of engagement remain ambiguous.

Early this month Human Rights Watch released a detailed report which placed America's controversial drone program front and center as missing its mark and taking an indiscriminate toll on innocent civilians in Yemen. The report found America in direct violation of the laws of war. Amnesty International has called drone strikes a "war crime". Many Yemeni's today fear Al-Qeada as much as they fear the terror of America raining down from the skies. According to the report America so far has carried out 81 targeted drone strikes inside Yemen, killing at least 473 combatants and civilians.  Jeremy Scahill's book and documentary "Dirty Wars" which came out earlier in the year, exposed the  nature of this war, that causes unspeakable horror in the name of keeping America safe. In response to the Humans Rights Watch report the White House spokesman Jay Carney said  

"We are reviewing these reports carefully. To the extent these reports claim that the US has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree. The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counter terrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law."

The denials and debate over numbers are endless. The math of how many innocent versus "bad-guys" killed, does not absolve anyone. It might make sense politically to not have troops on the ground and kill "terrorists" with so called surgical strikes from the sky. But what the report clearly exposes is that there is no such thing as a surgical strike. And in the eyes of the law, an innocent Afghan, Yemeni or Somali life is as precious as an American one. Where you live should not decide whether you get to live or die

The American drone program is largely run by the CIA, who rely on human intelligence on the ground to identify targets to destroy. On many occasions the intelligence has been faulty and innocent people have died and the US government has acknowledged that fact in the past. For that they have a term "Collateral Damage". Collateral Damage is a war crime. If one has to kill innocent people in poor desperate nations to keep America safe, then one has to wonder if this war is worth fighting like this, or can this war be won like this. There are real dangers out there, and there are people who are motivated to cause mayhem like recently witnessed at the Westgate Mall in Kenya. But taking innocent life to secure a planet or a nation, cannot be justified by a state under any situation. But then again by definition war is the taking of innocent life in one form or another. Ongoing case in point, Syria.

While the CIA is America's premier agency tasked with keeping the nation safe by relying on human intelligence on the ground, the NSA (National Security Agency) is tasked with doing the same using technology, the technology of eavesdropping. By using a sophisticated global grid of computers, satellites, listening posts and human analysts, the NSA listens to chatter on phones and the internet. It then filters millions of intercepted emails and phone calls using complex software, to foil or warn about terrorist attacks, or simply gather information that might be useful to the nation. With Edward Snowden blowing the cover on the NSA and exposing its over reach, there is high anxiety. It is perceived that the agency has gone above and beyond the law and has lost its bearings violating constitutional rights to privacy. The fact of the matter is, with the ongoing war on terror the nation signed away the right to privacy via the Patriot Act, which President Obama reaffirmed and endorsed. The president called it a minor inconvenience in exchange for national security. The argument is, if you are not doing anything that is deemed "wrong" or "dangerous" by the state apparatus, then there is nothing to worry. This was the same logic used by the Stasi when it spied on its citizens in East Germany spreading a veil of fear that defined an entire generation. The difference being, for now I can still write this blog without fear, hoping to be protected by the first amendment enshrined in the American constitution. Now that it has been revealed that even Google and Yahoo were violated by the NSA, one wonders whats next.

This week it was revealed that it was not just US citizens who were spied on, but citizens of other countries and their heads of state were also included. Thirty five world leaders had their phones tapped and the list could be longer. As a result an uneasy and embarrassing diplomatic situation has pushed the president on the back foot. Much like he was unaware of the kinks in the roll out of his signature health care plan, he denied knowing about the extent of NSA's activities. When the NSA chiefs were ordered up to congress to explain, they all defended their program by saying it was business as usual, no one should be surprised, all nations do it, even among friends, to gain an upper hand in the doggy dog world of espionage in social, economic, political and security arenas.

The Europeans, who have lived through the cold war grip of the KGB, Stasi and its ilk, do not see it as business as usual. They see it as a grave violation of their trust and rightfully so. I am sure they acknowledge that spying does go on among friends, but the tapping of phones at the highest of levels of government is something they don't see as normal. America will have to respond to this shameful behavior decisively and forcefully otherwise risk isolation and loss of camaraderie amongst allies.

When the airplanes rammed into the twin towers in Manhattan, they caused lasting damage the effects of which are still being felt a decade later. That ghastly event psychologically turned America inward transforming it into a hawkish fortress. The most telling example in addition to the phones and drones, are the twelve hundred or so security agencies, private and public, that have mushroomed in and around Washington since 9/11. It seems the madness of keeping America safe is causing more harm while it does some good. In the 2010 book titled "Top Secret America" Dana Priest and William Arkin, raised the alarm of a state security apparatus gone out of control, whose unraveling we witness today. What is even more telling is the acknowledgement by the president of America of being out of touch with what is going on under his watch.

Reigning in America's security apparatus is a gargantuan task. Billions of dollars are at stake, and like everything else, it is economics. Its a big job creator and a money maker for lobbyists and contractors. And politically since America has not seen a serious attack on its soil since 9/11, the security expansion is seen as a success. But the fact of the matter is, if it is not reigned in, it will do irreversible damage. And freedom if it not already is, will only be an illusion.

One of the founding fathers of America, Ben Franklin, eloquently said "Those who give up their liberty for more security, neither deserve liberty nor security". That holds true even in the violent times that we live in.

It is what it is.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Unraveling

It is final. Us humans are pushing the only planet we have, over the cliff. For those with doubts, the recently published United Nations' guarded report, is a resounding revelation. Global warming is real and is here to stay. One did not need a report to validate it. All one needed is an open eye and an understanding of how the human species has come to exist with that which gives it sustenance. Islands of garbage, balding forests, depleted wastelands and smog filled skies, that is how we have returned the favor. For the skeptics who think and say that global warming is a phenomenon that has been ongoing for millions of years and it is only engine earth going through its motions, there is enough scientific evidence to prove otherwise. Even for a moment if we were to side with the skeptics, it is hard to debate the fact that human activity is accelerating the warming process.

The recently released IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report states with 95% certainty, that humans are the dominant cause for global warming, at least since the 1950s. The report says that in the span of the last 1400 years, the decades between 1983 and 2012 have been the warmest in the Northern Hemisphere. That means, in those years more than ever, ice sheets lost more mass, glaciers rapidly shrunk and the spring snow cover continued to fall in extent. Going forward the sea levels are expected to rise at least 26 cm on the low end to 82 cm on the high end, relative to the emissions of this century.

The report says atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, leading to warmer oceans and erratic weather patterns. It is "virtually certain" the report says, that most places will see more hot and fewer cold temperature extremes as the warming increases. And it is very likely heat waves will occur more frequently than occasional winter extremes.

One of the most damning aspect of the report was the conclusion that some 15% to 40% of released carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere longer than 1000 years after the emissions have ended. Raising the concern that some aspects of climate change are irreversible.

So now what does humanity to do? How does it cope? How do we save whats left for future generations? All of the above data has been published, parsed and tossed in documentaries, books and media reports feverishly over the past two decades. As a result summits have been convened, symposiums have gathered and every few days alarms have been raised, but very little has been achieved in tangible behavioral change. In this latest UN report, four possible scenarios with varied emissions controls were presented. With strict controls we could possibly limit the temperature rise by as little as 0.3 degree celsius by year 2100. This was the best case scenario if we made some monumental changes today. The scientists who published the report expressed hope, albeit faint.

Humanity is no monolith. We have one planet, but everyone sees borders everywhere all the time. No two nations can agree on anything, let alone climate change. Even genocide by Sarin gas is disputed even when the evidence couldn't be starker. The developing nations see it as their right to burn their way to an affluent lifestyle. The developed ones cant stop consuming like there is no tomorrow. As there is always that next new gadget to be had and a virgin market to dump it on.

Human appetite for energy is insatiable. And energy consumption is the primary cause for green house gas emissions. Either we reduce our energy consumption or find ways to create clean energy. There is no doubt that the human addiction to all fossil fuels is not going to taper for another fifty or hundred years. There are still large reservoirs in the deepest oceans that are being readied to exploit. Clean energy is not yet sustainable to compete with conventional sources of energy. Unless and until this equation is resolved, any hopeful scenario the scientists foresee will be morphing into an impossible dream and a possible nightmare.

This month Japan turned off its last nuclear power station. All the fifty reactors of the nation are now offline. The nuclear disaster that resulted from a massive Tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, prompted the nation to rethink its energy production. Now there is a 30% shortfall in their energy sector. This has pushed Japan to rapidly peruse renewable energy like no other nation. But it has proven unsustainable. One square meter of land devoted to wind power generates just two watts of power. For solar power an equivalent area produces 20W. Nuclear power generates about 1000W per square meter. Therefore Japan has no choice but to turn to oil, gas and coal to make up for the nuclear deficit, thereby generating more green house gasses than it did in the past. It is what it is. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Let Freedom Ring

"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character"

These profound words washed over thousands on this day fifty years ago, changing the course for America forever. In the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Rev. Martin Luther King once and for all called into question the character of a nation that was moving against its own founding principles, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

1963 was a year when America was confronting issues of a critical nature. The Civil Rights movement headed by black leaders big and small, was unrelenting. The Vietnam war was sending young men back in body bags in numbers that were hard to ignore. The cold war was escalating with terrifying visions of a nuclear holocaust. There was violence everywhere and not much hope. In this environment Martin Luther King, guided by Gandhian principles, was talking non-violence and civil disobedience. And when he marched into Washington, his mission was not only to demand racial justice but economic equality.

America in many ways has come some distance in terms of racial justice, but it is no where close to what Martin Luther King envisioned in his historic speech. The economic gulf between white and black, has gotten worse and is only increasing. King knew that racial equality did not amount to much if there was no economic consequence to go along with it. The gathering that took place at the Washington Mall in 1963 was called "March on Washington for jobs and freedom" for a reason. King was clearly calling for a leveling, in terms of economic opportunity for blacks and other disenfranchised groups.

Today blacks lag behind whites in life expectancy and median income. According to The Economist, In 2011 the median household wealth (cash, investments, homes, cars etc. ) for white families was $110,500. For blacks it was $6,314. That means poorer black children are more likely to attend substandard schools and less likely to finish college. They have less money to put towards home ownership, which is the cornerstone of establishing wealth in this country. On average white families buy homes eight years earlier than black ones and have more money to put down on their mortgages. Therefore blacks live in depressed neighborhoods and are more likely to foreclose on their homes. Crime in these neighborhoods is disproportionately high and therefore the incarceration of young black men is excessive. In 2011, 478 of every 100,000 white men and 51 of every 100,000 white women were imprisoned for breaking the law. For black men that rate was 3,023 and for women 129. The black population of America is 13% as opposed to 77% white. Martin Luther King had a clear understanding of the demographics in 1963 and knew that a community that had been oppressed for centuries would need more than just equal freedom to succeed as a race.

This past weekend on a visit to Washington DC, I stood on the very spot where Martin Luther King addressed a sea of humanity, who had gathered in all its colors. When he saw all those hues holding signs, chanting slogans and singing songs of freedom, I am sure he was filled with hope and jubilation. A hope that America would live up to a higher purpose. Where people of all origins could lay claim to this land, as it belonged equally to everyone. There was no single race that could claim it more than any other, as its original owners had long been  vacated. This uniqueness of this land, was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, in all its coincidental enlightenment and contradiction. And it was King in 1963, who eventually brought it to bare fruit for myself and everyone who came before and after me. Without the civil rights movements, minority groups from around the world who make America their home, would not be able to enjoy the freedom and justice, that they take for granted with pride today.

As I climbed up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and laid eyes on the Gettysburg Address inscribed on the left wall of the memorial, it became clear to me that the two speeches, separated by a century, had essentially drafted a blue print for America. A framework and guide that has kept hope alive even in the darkest of hours and many a times has brought the nation back from the brink. The election of President Obama in one sense overtly symbolized the culmination of that hope. But it is evident, that though words are powerful and have great meaning, change is always painfully slow, incremental and not always forthcoming.

On one of the stone tablets inside the memorial museum were inscribed the following words by Abraham Lincoln.

"There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence - the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man"

These words were spoken in the 19th century. The dream is yet to be fully realized. It is what it is.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Last of a Breed

In journalism school I was taught, or rather I gathered, that a true journalist is not beholden to any nation, people, ideology or agenda. He or she is beholden to one thing and one thing alone "the truth". To find the truth and to expose it in all its complexity, is what journalists are supposed to do. To ask the tough questions without fear, to unwrap the uncomfortable silences, to uncover deception and lies in the service of the public, is what the noble profession of journalism is at its core. Many reporters in the last decade have died in this cause. Some in the battlefield and others in their offices, cars and verandahs. Others have made fools of themselves by chasing celebrity instead of the truth. But whenever a journalist dies on active duty, so dies democracy. The death of a journalist is as devastating as a death of a soldier defending right from wrong. In most cases it is more devastating, as a journalist most often knows right from wrong and sometimes a soldier does not. Therefore journalists are the true soldiers of democracy. With out their safety, freedom and stature, democracy seizes to exist.

This week one such towering soldier of American democracy left the planet, leaving a legacy unmatched and unparalleled. Her name - Helen Thomas, she was 92. In her long career she locked horns with ten US presidents, irritating and annoying them in the White House press room, by doing what any journalist should do, ask uncompromising questions. She was known as the dean of the White House Press Corps., for her long relentless tenure on the beat. She reported for the United Press International wire service for three decades and in her final years worked for the Hearst News Service.

A daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Helen Thomas was certainly a trail blazer for her sex. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club and the first female member and president of the White House Correspondent's Association.

Helen Thomas' dead pan, razor sharp yet simple and direct questioning of American presidents made her the stuff of legend. She famously asked Richard Nixon point blank what his secret plan of ending the Vietnam War was. She asked Ronald Reagan what right he had to invade Grenada in 1983. After the cold war ended and the Berlin Wall came down, in response to the defense budget remaining unchanged, she asked George H.W. Bush "Who's the enemy?". To George W, Bush she launched: "I'd like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?". For this she got banished to the back rows of the White House press room for three years, after rightfully earning a seat in the front row for decades. She would return to the front row after Bush left office to ask President Barack Obama "Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are you continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, 'If we don't go there, they'll all come here".

During the second Iraq war, I worked at ABC news as a video editor in the news division. As I watched from the inside the collusion of the news media with the agenda that was being set by the White House, it shattered my faith in the ethics I came to accept in college. As the mainstream news media joined the war machine in beating the drum, with imbedded reporters losing all perspective of their purpose, Helen Thomas did more than most by asking the "real" questions that should have been asked by everyone all along.

The American media has not bounced back from the low it fell to during the Iraq war. News gathering and reporting which is meant to be a public service, is driven more and more by a profit motive. Conglomerates such as New Corp., have taken hold of more news organizations than ever before, setting an agenda by ownership and control. Cable television news has become a highly polarized space, where journalism is guided by sensationalism, celebrity and careless, callous and  uninformed sound bytes that boggle the mind. The internet has exploded, perforated and fragmented the media space, leaving a clutter of opinions and diatribes that are hard to keep track of, and sometimes make sense of. The only place it seems like one can find anything that can be deemed news or newsworthy is on so called "Fake News Shows" like "The Daily Show", "The Colbert Report" or "The Bill Maher Show". It seems like journalism these days lies somewhere between the absurdity of that which is exposed in the above mentioned comedy shows and the seriousness of the established outfits such as the New York Time, Washington Post, BBC and its ilk. Humor sometimes ends up being the winner by just being unabashedly honest and boldly transparent.

Helen Thomas with all her accolades did fall victim to the very media world described above. Honesty in today's media landscape can be dangerous if you are on the wrong side of the prevalent opinion. On May 27, 2010, she was ambushed by Rabbi David Nesenoff at a White House event. Wearing a yarmulke and carrying a video camera, the rabbi approached her and asked if she had any comments on Israel."Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she blurted. "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany, it's not Poland." Asked where they should go, she answered, "They should go home.""Where's home?" Nesenoff asked. "Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else," Thomas replied. She later apologized for her remarks, but the damage was done. By speaking up against Israel she fell on the wrong side of western history. While historically what she said was factual, it is her honesty in a time of politics that got her into trouble.

There is no doubt Helen Thomas can only be described as a patriot and a hero. Her seat in the White House press room made a huge difference in designating America as a democracy even in its darkest hour. To fill her shoes will be a formidable task. But in many ways, she just did her job and did it as it was supposed to be done. By exercising her right as a citizen with full force and without fear, she set an example for men and woman to follow. If only more of us could do that. It is what it is.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Spook Nation

Through out history, governments have spied on their people for reasons known and unknown. Authoritarian regimes did it to scare their people into control and submission. The secret police, like the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Communist Romania and more recently in Egypt, China and Iran, infiltrated the civilian population to instill a fear of being constantly watched. Democracies have spied on their people by adopting more invisible methods to avoid shattering the mirage of a free society. From the telegraph to the telephone, everything has been used to spy on the "enemy" within and without. Today the internet is the technology of choice. Having infiltrated every artery of our lives, the internet has become an effective tool to spy, snoop and intercept. When Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) imagined his dystopian novel "1984" in 1949, he did visualize technology to be an instrument for totalitarianism. I don't think he could have ever imagined the sophistication to which it has evolved today. From drones to iphones, the art of surveillance has been perfected and is only being improved upon. By getting informed consent from those being surveilled in suspicious and underhanded ways, under the pretext of keeping the people in question "safe", and protecting companies from lawsuits, the world wide web has certainly cast a formidable "web".

The day I sat at this thing called the "computer", and formed words and sentences next to a flashing cursor and tapped "send", only to watch alphabets vanish into ether, I knew a new age had dawned. From that almost primal moment in the 1990's, to the present day, technology has slipped by the grasp of humankind. One no longer has to press "send". Just by turning on your computer or your cellphone, one is giving away information about oneself endlessly all the time. And the invisible forces behind the "world wide web" have your permission, to use that information to sell to you, inform you and spy on you.

A new revealing documentary film titled "Terms and Conditions May Apply"examines how as a society and a planet we have come to give away all control of privacy and a right to seclusion, by a click of a button. As we relentlessly engage with the internet to perform daily tasks, such as shopping, communicating and socializing, we forget those uninvited guests who enter our circle of friends without our knowledge, only to gain information about us from the shadows.

So when this month Edward Snowden revealed to the world via The Guardian newspaper, that the American government was intercepting emails and phone calls of its citizens and has been requesting data in secret from internet and phone companies like Apple, Google, Yahoo, Verizon and ATT , it should not have come as a surprise. But it did for those who were living with their head in the sand. For revealing the names of classified dragnet surveillance programs PRISM and TEMPORA, he is being hunted by the US government who hope to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. As he lies holed up in a Moscow airport, his fate is being decided in the high-wire act of diplomatic double speak between two erstwhile cold war adversaries.

What Edward Snowden accomplished, is being hailed by many as heroic. Much like what Bradley Manning did when he leaked secret government communiqués to Wikileaks, exposing the underbelly of war and diplomacy and Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the deceptions of the US Government during the Vietnam war, via the Pentagon Papers. Edward Snowden is being hailed as the next "whistle-blower" extraordinaire. But what differentiates him from the others, is that he is a fugitive, hiding in a nation which has an abhorrent record on civil and human rights.

When George Bush and the Congress signed the Patriot Act into law in 2001, many civil liberties were gutted in the United States, under the guise of waging the nebulous "war on terror". The Patriot Act gave carte blanche to the president and the agencies that are entrusted with keeping America safe, the right to search any American citizen's phone, email and financial records without a court order. The Watergate Scandal and the wire tapping the CIA and FBI extensively engaged in during the sixties had brought into place stringent laws to protect the privacy of American citizens. The Patriot Act did away with most of those protections. The surveillance laws that were imbedded in the Patriot Act were to expire in 2005. President Obama and the Congress extended those provisions which are in effect today.

It was revealed today, by The Guardian, that the Obama Administration for more than two years directly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to continue collecting vast amounts of records detailing the email and internet usage of Americans. The collection of these records began under the Bush administration's wide-ranging warrant less surveillance program, collectively known by the NSA codename Stellar Wind. When questioned by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, about the embarrassing revelations, the obvious defense President Obama put forth was that the violation of civil rights was necessary for the safety of all and Germany had in fact benefited as a result. A "minor inconvenience" he quoted for the greater good, as many terrorist plots were foiled and lives saved as a result of the snooping. 

Whenever America or the west has been attacked by terrorists or terrorism, politicians and the media have taken every opportunity to frame it as an attack on "our way of life". An onslaught on "freedom" and all that it embodies. Privacy is personal freedom. When that space is violated, so is democracy and all that it guarantees, no matter the justification. It is a serious attack on the way of life we are meant to believe we are living in the United States.

To exchange freedom for security, is more than just an inconvenience. Many may not put much thought to it, as security and safety is momentary and amorphous, a state of mind. One only thinks of it at an airport or in a New York city subway. But at the great American malls, where one is required to focus on consumption, security and freedom mean very little. Unless you have a mad man strolling around with a machine gun. Which has happened much too often in America, which the congress and the president have yet to satisfactorily address.

Certainly, America faces real threats from those who have tried and are trying to cause harm. And not everyone walks in the president's shoes, to know what is in the chatter. But one has to weigh the costs, when one infringes on ones people. President Obama promised more transparency in his government, and as a constitutional professor promised a better shade of democracy. It does not bode well for him when his administration is accused of spying on those who elected him. 

In the age of the internet that is offering wonders and experiences that are fast changing the world, keeping up with privacy issues is going to be a challenge. Much like strict laws keep cloning and other medical advances that are reshaping humans at the most fundamental level under check, similar laws and ethics are required to keep the issue of privacy under check. The internet and its obligations to privacy have to be policed, if we have to expect true democracy on the floor of the most democratic technology invented by mankind.

By igniting this debate in the rapidly changing tech age, Edward Snowden has undoubtedly done us a service. If he does return home, there is no question he will be prosecuted for violating the secrecy laws of the government. While there is a need for secrecy within government for efficient functioning, too much of it has often proven counterproductive and has mostly done harm.  The prosecutions the Obama administration has sought against those on the inside who have leaked information to the press, has exposed a very disturbing side of the government, which only weakens its credibility.

While the government is trying to frame the Snowden expose´as a security issue, many view it as a civil rights issue. When one takes comfort in democracy, it is under the assumption that one's civil rights are protected under all mitigating circumstances. In a disturbing development this month, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - a seminal civil rights legislation which gave scores of disenfranchised African Americans in the south, the right to vote. The voting rights act requires nine states mostly in the south, which have had and have a history of discrimination, to get approval from the justice department, before they change their voting laws. That will no longer be the case. On a more positive note, in a landmark civil rights decision, the Supreme Court made the road slightly easier for the gay community, by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied them certain federal benefits. A democracy that cannot guarantee all civil rights to all, at all times, despite any pressing circumstances, is a sham. It is what it is.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Real Scandal

Scandal - an offense caused by a fault or misdeed. Or a disgraceful, discreditable action or circumstance.

For the past few weeks here in America, president Obama has been reportedly embroiled in multiple "scandals". Depending on whose lens you see through, these so called scandals appear either grave or innocuous. As there is a mid-term election on the horizon and the opposition has very little to run on, they are latching onto anything damaging they can find on the president. The "scandals" that are in the news or have been thus far are, "The IRS Scandal", "The Benghazi Scandal", "The AP Scandal" and "The Drone Scandal". Of all, the one which should be scrutinized the most, is given the least attention. The killing of US and other civilians from the sky, authorized by the president and engaged by the CIA, is nothing but scandalous no matter the justification. But the other issues have dominated the debate as though the president had committed a crime graver than the Watergate and Iran Contra affair. The right wing media has spared no expense in drumming up a lethal rhetoric around these issues, and the public at large has paid little attention.

While there has been some wrong doing in all of the above mentioned cases, implicating the president directly has been a leap, which many have sought but not succeeded. In the case of Benghazi, Libya where an American ambassador was killed, it seemed like a chaotic situation mishandled due to a lack of accurate intelligence. If it was a deliberate terrorist attack, and there was actionable intelligence, then so was 9/11. There is evidence that the president's staff bungled how they reported the incident to the public. The president's staff chose the talking points to be deliberately vague as it seemed they were not in control of the events taking place. Or even if they did know something they chose to be strategic in their wording for political reasons and ended up being inconsistent. There is nothing new about this. This is routine practice. The job of the president's staff is to sugarcoat anything controversial so as to protect the president in every way. That is what every presidential staff has done since the very beginning.

The IRS (Internal Revenue Service) is an organization that is largely despised by the public when it taxes their paycheck. Therefore it is required to be apolitical in its functioning. It was found that it became political by scrutinizing conservative groups more than others in giving them special tax exempt status. This is an example of corruption that is ever present in Washington in various arenas, based on which party is in power.

The AP (Associated Press) scandal where the Justice department seized telephone records of journalist's in the name of national security, is another example of a steady erosion of democracy, that has been ongoing since 9/11. Worse things have happened in the name of "national security" since the Patriot Act was egregiously passed by George Bush and his cohorts.

While the national news media and anyone who had a bone to pick with the establishment were making hay, trying to embroil the president deeper than was possible, all they were doing was clamoring an already crowded media space. Therefore there was little traction to be gained. The president was on the offensive, terminating some of the people in charge and distancing himself from the media circus by launching investigations and finding legalities to defend some of his questionable actions. All in all it seemed like with time, his staff was succeeding with their strategy.

Elsewhere in the world, there were scandals of a true nature brewing. Scandal nation India had a new one to add to its long list. This time the cricketing world had sunk to its lowest depths. Large scale match fixing and betting had spread like cancer taking the game revered by a billion people down the gutter. In Bangladesh, the building collapse that claimed more than a thousand lives, revealed the corruption from the prime minister down to the officials who oversaw the licensing and construction. It is only a matter of time before more structures would collapse or burn taking lives that are seen as disposable in the service of the privileged. In Syria a proxy war is in full swing between Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side and Qatar, Saudi Arabia, US and its allies on the other. The result, indiscriminate killing and horror, the full extent of which will only be revealed when the dust settles years from now.

The "Real Scandals" that largely went unnoticed are the "Torture Report" which overtly implicated the United States of America in violating the Geneva conventions. For all the democracy America touts, no one has yet been held accountable. And the doomsday fact that the carbon dioxide level in the earth's atmosphere has reached a point of no return. The dreaded 400 parts per billion threshold has been reached and there is no chemotherapy that can reverse this cancer. In the words of the environmentalist ex-president of Maldives, Mohamed Nashid, "there is no Plan B as there is no Planet B". It is what it is.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Boston to Baghdad

America's fragile ceiling was shattered on April 20th, when two bombs disrupted the festivities at the finish line of the prestigious Boston marathon. Fortress America had avoided being attacked since 2001. After billions of dollars spent on gathering intelligence within and outside the country, and eradicating every nail clipper to ever pass through an x-ray machine, America's fortune ran out. Three people died and body parts were strewn all over and a nightmare that has become routine in other parts of the world, returned to this nation.

And so began an all too familiar media frenzy with incessant, speculative, inaccurate coverage, compromising all journalistic ethics possible. From CNN's much lampooned blunder to FOX's over the top xenophobia, the race to get the "exclusive", had compromised what little reputation TV journalism had had left. As the manhunt for the alleged bombers became a live TV "action thriller" event, with gun battles, car chases, explosions, macho reporters and more carnage, New York City went on high alert. When it was all over, crowds poured out on to the streets chanting USA! USA! and the police and FBI agents were declared America's brave heroes. The good yet again had prevailed and "evil" was demolished. This time the countries of Chechnya and Dagestan were demonized and the faces of two young Caucasian men, became the personification of "evil". The media tried their level best to extract the word "Islam" from the equation, even before it was apparent. "Islam" yet again became the dreaded word that conjured up ideas of suspicion, terror and mistrust of the other. The only difference between the brothers and Timothy McVeigh (the Oklohama City bomber) were their names. They were all radicalized by a violent ideology that only changes labels with changing times.

The day the Boston marathon was transformed from an event of human endurance to a moment of human depravity, the same day Iraq lay waste to horrific bombings. From Baghdad to Kirkuk to Nasariah, 31 people died and scores were injured. The media barely paid attention as Iraq is a place where death by indiscriminate carnage is routine. While the world was gripped by what had happened in Boston, and the hunt for the two bombers was escalating, and the minute by minute coverage was keeping people on the edge of their seats, many in Iraq were just going about their business, picking up body parts and calling it another day in the life of a nation devastated by sectarian violence. America bares responsibility for the state of affairs in Iraq. But now that the US troops have left, so has the attention of the world.

What happened in both these places, as horrific as it is, has become the new normal. The cycle of violence of this nature, around the world, has become common and a matter of fact. In the west there is much more scrutiny and exposure, as it is framed as an attack on "their way of life". In other places like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, it just makes it past the daily police blotter for a few days. Any kind of inoculation against such terror can only be temporary, as the roots of the problem are complicated to address and the willingness to do so is limited. The desire to create water tight defenses by spending billions and spawning an industry and society of surveillance is greater, than engaging in meaningful global conversations to address the causes of disenchantment, injustice, poverty and a sense of exploitation that leads to violent revolt.

Around the same time the Boston bombing took place an important report was published which largely went unnoticed by the mainstream media. Any discussion or debate around it, which should have dominated the news cycle, was only cursory. The "Torture Report" as it has come to be known is a 577 page document issued by a panel convened by the Constitution Project, and chaired by two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James R. Jones. The report looked at the broad range of policies and practices that were adopted by the U.S. to deal with detainees after the September 11th attacks. “Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel,” the report’s opening states, “is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” And most of the people who endured the torture were Muslim by faith. And that rarely goes unnoticed. The apparatus that sponsored the people who grossly violated the Geneva conventions will never be held to account. There will be no "Nuremberg Trials" this time, and the absolute truth will remain cloaked. President Obama made that so in the first term of his presidency.

As long as Guantanamo Bay exists as a symbol of the torture America engineered under the pretense of national security and the Israel-Palestine conflict festers as an open wound as more and more Palestinian land gets eaten away. And as the wars that are waged around the globe under the pretext of "fighting terror" never cease to end, the doctrine to radicalize against the west will freely be available to those motivated.

As any meaningful law to address gun violence in America got diluted into a government gutter, discussion about the gun battles that took place between law enforcement and the bombers were largely outside the realm of the gun control debate. There were hundreds of rounds fired the day the alleged bombers were killed and arrested. There was very little said about where they could have procured their arsenal. The defenders of the 2nd Amendment, criticized those who raised this issue for using the bombing to push an agenda. While those on the other side argued that tougher gun laws could have made a bad situation less worse. Or maybe could have even prevented such an incident. The fact is, in a largely free society such as America, it is easy to procure raw materials and know how if you had the intention to do harm. And that is what was on display in Boston.

As the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of the dead and maimed cried in despair, so did the mother of the bombers who lost her children to a kind of thinking that she claimed she did not give birth to. For all the mothers everywhere who have seen their loved ones blown away to senseless violence, there is no balm, only pain and torment.

Justice is a sacred word that enshrines and protects the idea of our humanity. It is a very personal idea that means the same to all those who have been wronged and victimized. In an ideal democratic society, justice belongs to all and is delivered in equal measure with due process no matter who you are. But when justice becomes the privilege of the privileged, democracy is diluted, giving rise to militancy and violence. Justice is a rare commodity thesedays. When revolutions develop as a counter measure, as seen in the middle east, they are quickly co-opted by another form of corruption as seen in Egypt. Even within established democracies, where the rule of law is sacrosanct, and the notion of "justice for all" has been established via robust institutions over centuries, the "torture report" on America exposes the weakness that lies within. As long as there is a deficit of justice, and there are stark imbalances in resources, power, information and 22, there will be an ideology that will foster violence in an ever shrinking world.

A few days ago George W. Bush took part in a ritual that is only native to the United States of America. He inaugurated a monument to himself. Like many presidents before him, a presidential library was erected in his honor which will house documents and other presidential paraphernalia for future generations to explore. A time capsule of sorts in dedication to the eight years he helmed his country. At the commemoration ceremony, flanked by all the surviving presidents who were taking part in this exclusive ritual, the "war president" got teary while giving the closing speech. The only time I remember seeing genuine emotion in a man who took America to an erroneous war, whose killing still has not stopped. It is what it is.

Sunday, March 31, 2013


It is March and everyone in this part of the world is waiting for the cold gray to withdraw and the earth to give way to green. As temperatures begin to warm and the mood begins to shift, there is hope that a desperately needed change in other aspects of life will also follow. To hope is but human, but in the current climate to expect, seems foolish. Someone once said, the measure of one's success is how well one deals with disappointments. It seems as though humanity has become accustomed to dealing with disappointments very well.

No matter where you turn, there seems to be a condition of stalemate. A recent report about the two year long civil war in Syria stated that the pace of killing there had surpassed Iraq. The conflict has claimed 70,000 lives in half the time. The world waits for "red lines" to be crossed for intervention, while the slaughter continues unabated. When all is set and done, the world will look back and wish it had intervened earlier to stop the killing. Much like Rawanda, the postmortem would be painful and unfortunately it is already much too late for many.

Stalemate in Washington D.C., seems to be the norm. Political bickering and partizan jockeying has resulted in a congress that has reached its highest level of dysfunction. Nothing gets done and the chances of anything concrete happening get more and more distant. The sequestration is taking its toll on essential services and the people in power don't seem to care. Decisions to reign in the out of control deficit are far from being reached. Its been barely three months since children were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut and any meaningful legislation on gun violence has all but withered away. A ban on assault weapons, the kind that was used in the horrific tragedy, which President Obama promised would be the cornerstone of his gun control reform, has all but vanished from the debate. More time and energy is being spent in hearing and rehashing the age old debate over same-sex marriage than on issues that really matter to the larger public.

North Korea seems to be using its bull horn again to rile up a giant. Angered by the punishing sanctions that prevent its elite from indulging in open debauchery while its citizens starve, Pyongyang has unleashed bellicose rhetoric threatening America and its regional partners with nuclear war. By shredding the Armistice agreement they have effectively returned the two Koreas to a state of war. In response America flew its nuclear bombers to the peninsula in mock drills to send a message that open threats will not be taken lightly. Whether this would just be another North Korean high wire act or a real cause for concern, only time will tell. The stalemate continues as the world has not found a meaningful way to engage this secluded nation that has taken its own people hostage for four generations now.

In Pakistan, it is election season once again. In May, for the first time in its history, Pakistan completes a full term of its democratically elected parliament and president. No one is rejoicing or celebrating this achievement. In the 66 years of its existence, Pakistan has seen extreme political upheaval. Assassinations, military coups, terrorism and sectarian wars have scarred the nation to despair. Pakistan as a result hinges on becoming a failed state with nuclear weapons, and therefore has become the most dangerous place on earth in the estimation of many security experts. The current party in power, like its predecessors, has enriched itself to the hilt. President Zardari, who once spent time in prison for corruption, recently built a bomb proof mansion for himself and his son on 25 acres of land outside Lahore. With sprawling lawns that can hold 10,000 people behind 13 foot reinforced concrete walls and a basement swimming pool, the mansion is his latest addition to a corrupt legacy. While most ordinary citizens deal with rampant inflation, acute power shortages and live in fear of sectarian violence and suicide bombers, the ruling class continues its record of profiteering and mismanagement of the state. As the much maligned previous president and dictator Parvez Musharraf returns to his homeland to take part in the elections, there is very little hope that much is going to change in Pakistan. The stalemate and status-quo is bound to continue.

In neighboring India things are better, but rampant corruption undermines everything that could be desirable. The dynastic politics at the top spearheaded by the Gandhi family, is the source of all corruption and dysfunction in the system. The family tightly controls the reigns of power by making despicable deals with nefarious factions to hold on to power. Making sure that Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi stay at the helm at any cost. Much like his father, Rahul Gandhi is being groomed to be Prime Minister, but has very little talent to show for it. His brother-in-law Robert Vadra, has become a political liability by being mired in one corruption scandal after another. Yet he continues to enjoy a close relationship with the family. As long as the political establishment in India revolves around this family, progress in India will be stunted. An alternative has not emerged, therefore the stalemate continues and the prospects do not look promising at all. In a recent study it was found that only 2.5% of Indian's pay income tax. And only 42,800 people declared an income over 10 million rupees ($184,000). The Indian finance minister finds these figures "laughable". Today, India buys more Rolls Royces, Mercedes Benzes and other luxury items than most nations. This is an indication of the corruption that is plaguing the country today. While indicators such as poverty and education show marginal improvement, India is poised to become the fourth largest military power in the world by the end of the decade. The private sector does what it can to move the country forward, but when the ruling class is made up of criminals, there is only so far a nation can progress.

President Obama visited Israel and Palestine this month. Grand speeches and hand shakes were on full display. With loud applause and some heckling, President Obama, like six presidents before him, talked about the right of Palestinians to live in their own homeland as citizens and not a caged people. The two state solution was again reaffirmed and rebroadcasted as the final solution to a final problem. The reality on the ground clearly shows a different picture. The two state solution idea seems to have long left the station. The Israeli settlements have all but ravaged and raped Palestinian lands and show no signs of stopping. A wall that clearly imprisons a people continues to expand. The Palestinian people are divided into two states and the only solution they see is a one state one. Therefore the stalemate promises to continue and the plight of the Palestinian people grows even more uncertain and dire, and the moral character of a democratic nation called Israel sinks even lower.

In Kenya a new president was elected. After a heavily disputed election, Uhuru Kenyatta - a man who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity - was affirmed president by the Supreme Court. An election that was largely fought along sectarian lines and narrowly won by Uhuru Kenyatta proved that Kenya had not healed from its last ordeal. The last disputed election that took place in 2007 saw thousands of people murdered due to tribal animosity and allegiances. According to the ICC Uhuru Kenyatta was one of the men who orchestrated some of the bloodshed. Now that he is president, he is requesting the charges to be dropped. For the time being his opponent Raila Odinga has accepted defeat and agreed to abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court. But a stalemate hangs over, and that could boil over into violence and carnage at any given time.

Another European nation had to be bailed out this month. Cyprus which had all but lost its banks, was rescued by the European Union and the IMF with a 10 billion euro hand out. Some think Cyprus was blackmailed into taking the hand out at the cost of some serious hardship to its citizens. Who's next is anyone's guess as the experiment known as the European Union continues to unravel at its seams.

As the new Pope called for global peace and reconciliation in his Easter message, some in the Vatican Square and else where looked up and applauded. In the real world, the idea of real peace hung in the balance as usual. Maintained by force, like in Northern Mali and by deterrence as in the Korean peninsula, peace in some places is a complicated entity to have. As the honeymoon with the new Pope is in full swing, there is an expectation of change. But not much is likely to change, as change disrupts order. Catholicism and the Vatican survive on conservative values, catering to a base that looks up to it for the continuation of those standards. How much it will swing to bring more people into its fold, is any ones guess.

So as the world turns and seasons change, there is hope that there will be a movement towards amend, away from a condition of stalemate to a resolution of consequence. For those who suffer as a result of no action or action that is not desirable, hope in the future or in some abstraction is the only place for solace. That is what it is.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


A midnight alert on my iPhone reported "Two Explosions in Hyderabad. Many dead. Scores injured". I was perturbed. I immediately called my father who lives in Hyderabad. He was distressed and disturbed. The carnage that was on television was hard for him to see. Body parts scattered in the rubble, maimed bodies in white bandages strewn across crowded hospital beds and women wailing over their loved ones. Two bombs had killed 17 people and left 120 injured in a congested neighborhood of the city. Hyderabad rarely makes it to the international scene; on February 21, it made headlines across the globe for a few hours.

I left Hyderabad in the early 90s and have since returned periodically from my adopted home in Brooklyn, New York. Watching my city from a distance and sometimes feeling a foreigner when I am there, has given me a rare insight into its evolution. The seamless intermingling of Islamic and Hindu culture in this city, has defined everyone's identity for centuries. This aspect has always been a matter of pride and charm for those who have lived here or have passed through. Most Hyderabadi's consider themselves to be part Muslim and part Hindu and can appreciate each other’s food, customs and traditions with very little effort. My father speaks, reads and writes fluently in Urdu, which is most often considered a Muslim language. He grew up in British India, when Hyderabad was a Muslim kingdom and Urdu was the official language of the region and everyone had to learn and speak it. It is no longer the case. For many urban denizens Urdu has become as foreign as German or French.

Growing up in Hyderabad was complicated at times. There would be periodic tension in the air when religious riots would break out in the "Old City". The older part of this 400-year-old city is a congested maze of magnificent beauty and filth. Ancient monuments, majestic palaces and ornate doorways lie hidden among urban blight and narrow alleyways. Hindus and Muslims live packed together in this part of the city as they have for centuries. Their religious public ceremonies dominate the streets during festival season.

Sometimes horror stories of Hindus killing Muslims and vice versa would fill the morning headlines and the whole city would shut down. People living in the new part of town, who were mostly middle or upper middle class, would be left angry, disturbed and befuddled by the violence. Everyone always knew the riots were ignited by the religious mafia and its criminal political cohorts, for reasons beyond most people's comprehension. The dark and painful legacy of the India-Pakistan separation and the butchery that took place along religious lines at that time, always loomed large. A few people would be knifed, the police would declare a curfew, some arson would take place, the city would turn into a ghost town for a few days. Hardworking people and businessmen would be disgusted and distraught. Us children would be happy for not having to go to school. Then life would slowly return to normal until the next flare up.

While the violence during the riots would be senseless, in no measure can it be compared to what took place this week. We never heard of bombs or explosions. In the past seven years Hyderabad has been a victim to at least five explosions that have caused mayhem, gripping the city in fear like never before.

Hyderabad is no Aleppo, Kabul, Quetta, Baghdad or Tripoli. But the city has dramatically changed over the last decade and the population has increased significantly pushing the city to grow in every direction possible, including skyward. IT companies from Microsoft to Infosys all have offices here and the droves that service them keep increasing. Much like the movie industry transformed the fabric of the city in the 80s and 90s, the technology boom has rearranged the city in the last decade, tearing one city into many. The boom has created wealth and economic mobility never seen before. But large sections of the city have not been touched at all by the shine.

Hyderabad has had its share of political upheaval some of which is still on going. The painful violent invasion of Hyderabad in 1948 by the national police, effectively assimilated it into the Indian Union. The Naxallite (peasant revolt) movement which started in the 60s in the rural areas sometimes brought violence into the city. A regional uprising to split the state into two distinct ethnic provinces that started in the 60s, has had a resurgence and has caused chaos on every front over the last few years. So when the recent explosions took place there were a range of groups who could have had a motive to pursue it. But as always, due to the long history of animosity and involvement of Pakistan and its terrorist groups in spreading havoc in India, the obvious glance shifted westward.

As usual the Muslim groups with various beefs to pick with the Indian government came under scrutiny. Pakistan's inbred terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and its ilk were mentioned. Then speculation that this attack could be a reprisal for the executions of two terrorists in Indian custody was seen as a possibility. Last November Ajmal Qasab the only surviving gunman from the 2011 terrorist attacks on Bombay was expeditiously hanged. The 25 year old terrorist who had done the bidding of his Lashkar-e-Taiba handlers from Pakistan, by spraying innocent bystanders with bullets, was sentenced to death by a court and executed in secret for populist political reasons. Early this month, Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man who was involved in planning the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001 was suddenly pulled out of his 12 year long solitary confinement and put to death in secret. His family was not informed of his impending execution and his body was never returned to them. His trial and sentencing was fraught with controversy and exposed the failings of the Indian justice system and the media. The gaping holes in the case against Afzal Guru were exposed in the press by Arundhati Roy and others.

In reality there are many groups within India that have reasons to cause mayhem only to make a point against a system that has failed to deliver. Human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, lack of social justice, a decrepit justice system and a corrupt and criminal political class have all created a toxic environment. For example, since 1990 when the struggle for self-determination in Kashmir became militant, 68,000 people have died, 10,000 have disappeared, and at least 100,000 have been tortured at the hands of the Indian Army. Whether "Saffron Terrorists" (Hindu Terrorists) or your run of the mill "Islamic Terrorists" carried out these senseless killings in Hyderabad, only time will tell. Maybe an official report ten years too late will reveal something unexpected. But the truth will always remain masqueraded so long as there is no faith in the system. 

Indiscriminate carnage of civilians has become a recurrent phenomenon around the world. Choosing "Soft Targets" has become the order of the day. As a result a sense of depraved indifference has risen in the minds of ordinary citizens, against the system, towards those who kill and those who get killed. May it be terrorist organizations doing the killing or governments and their military establishments (as in the case of Sri Lanka), scenes of mass murder have desensitized the public. Making the shock and the memory of it as short lived as a blink of an eye. There will be no memorials, no hour long TV shows about the victims of the Hyderabad blast. Just return to business as usual. Life is cheap and disposable in a nation of too many.
There is no dearth if senseless killing in the world. There never was. From dictators to democracies, they all take part in the art of senseless killing and find means to justify their actions to the world. President Bashar Assad in Syria butchers his own people claiming to be protecting his nation from terrorists. The President of the United States authorizes the use of drones and violates the sovereignty of nations to kill people who supposedly threaten his country. Close to three thousand people have died in US drone strikes mostly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Many of them unproven terrorists. Some women and children as well. China recently contemplated using a drone to kill a drug lord. So it is only a matter of time when other nations will procure flying objects to kill, playing judge, jury and executioner from the sky.
Poverty, destitution, uncertainty and a loss of faith in the system often breeds high levels of religious zeal. Spiritual congregation, places of worship and Ashrams fill the void for some. Revolt using violence as a means of expression also fills a void for some who feel they have been wronged. One has to appreciate life to not want to end it. There are too many today, to whom death is but a momentary blip, a speck on the road to oblivion, a way of making an illusory impact. Executing killers makes one a killer and only breeds more killing. Whether you do it from the sky or from the ground, killing can never be an answer or a solution to anything. It is what it is.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


This month American's marked the 40th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court ruling which commonly goes by the name Roe V. Wade. This Supreme Court ruling was a cornerstone in the evolution of America and legalized the much-stigmatized act of a medical abortion across the nation. Thus saving lives of those who sought these services in the shadows. Twenty years ago a minor adjustment was made to that ruling. The court gave individual states the legal right to impose regulations as long as they didn't cause an "undue burden" on woman's abortion rights. That opened the floodgates, and since then states with conservative or Republican administrations have been trying to limit abortion rights of women to the best of their ability. The rationale to do so has ranged from the religious, moral, political to the downright absurd. As a result women have suffered yet again, whose consent or approval was largely ignored, as their innards became the property of the state.

Recently Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill into law, which went into effect on February 6th, 2012. The law will force Texas women to undergo an ultrasound, hear a detailed description of the fetus and then wait a full 24 hours before receiving abortion care. Mandatory sonogram bills have since been introduced in 14 states. Arizona, Louisiana and Texas have already enacted ultrasound laws. The Texas law -- which is one of the most extreme, requires doctors to tell a woman the size of her fetus' limbs and organs, even if she does not want to know. The law also forces physicians to make an image of the fetus and the sound of its heartbeat made available to a woman before she can undergo the procedure. Perry, who made the bill an emergency measure, said that the law will "ensure that every Texas woman seeking an abortion has all the facts about the life she is carrying and understands the devastating impact of such a life-changing decision."

Two weeks after the Texas law was passed Carolyn Jones, a journalist, went into a clinic for an abortion. Pregnant with her second child, Jones was told by her doctor that he was worried about the shape of her baby's head. After two sonograms a specialist's office revealed a problem that was preventing her son's brain, spine and legs from developing correctly. The specialist warned that if the child made it to term, he would suffer greatly and need a lifetime of care. Jones and her husband decided they would abort their child. It was an extremely traumatic decision for them to arrive at. Her trauma was elevated to an inhuman level when she had to go through a third mandated sonogram because of the Taxas law. She had to hear the heart beat of her unborn child yet again and listen to a mandated script by the administering doctor, describe the fetus in detail. Jones is still traumatized by that experience so much that she has launched media campaign showing how this law violates a woman's right to chose with a gross invasion of her privacy.

Abortion has always been a contentious issue in America. Despite the progress made by various feminist and women's rights groups over decades, it still dominates the political and social debate like a lightening rod. To a large extent there has been a level of consensus on all sides, when it comes to pregnancies caused by incest or rape. Recently in New Mexico, a Republican "woman" lawmaker Cathrynn Brown, introduced a bill that will force rape victims to carry their pregnancies to term during their sexual assault trials or face charges of "tampering with evidence" which carries a three year prison term. Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.

Today in America, four states, Arkansas, Mississippi and North and South Dakota have only one legal abortion clinic. Eight states outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Louisiana has no exception for rape or incest victims and no law prevents rapists from demanding visitation rights. And eight states have mandatory ultrasound laws much like Texas. One factor that unifies all these states is that they are overwhelmingly Republican. So much for progress, in the "land of the free".

In Morocco a year ago, a 16-year-old committed suicide after a law forced her to marry her rapist. Her parents and a judge had pushed through her marriage to save her family's "honor". The incident sparked an outcry forcing the government this month to change a draconian law that allows rapists avoid charges if they marry their victims.

On December 17, 2012, the barbaric rape and murder of a young woman in the capital city of India ignited a nation to its core and sent shock waves across the globe. The debate that followed exposed the depraved nature of Indian society and the people who rule over them. It brought into daylight the criminal nature of its political class, which includes many alleged rapists, it exposed the ineffectual, understaffed and impotent police force and last but not least revealed the true nature of a culture that has lost its social bearings. The horrific incident that took place in New Delhi held a mirror to a nation that needs serious self examining. Since this incident, there have been many that have followed and many more went unreported. Exposing further a scourge that faces a people, whose deities and leaders, present and past are women

The incessant desire to only have male children and using illegal sonograms to abort girl children has lead to a lopsided sex ratio that has had a dire impact on Indian society. The lack of a free social space outside of marriage, where men and women can interact in a healthy manner, has led to a perversion that Bollywood and the internet feed and exploit, causing women to fear for their safety after 7 PM in most parts of the nation. Whether the December 17th incident, which still manages to stay alive in the media, will actually bring forth any meaningful change, is a daunting question that lingers over India like a dense New Delhi fog.

Whether life begins at conception or at birth is a matter of opinion. Whether women have equal status in society is based on geography and circumstance. In most cases, women certainly do not make equal pay for equal work. What is evident though across the globe, is that for a great many women, things are as worse as they have ever been. From acid attacks and honor killings, to rape, date rape and gender discrimination, women in this day and age, in all societies, still face an uphill task. While there is a universal realization that there is a need for change, progress most often is incremental and sometimes comes at a heavy cost. The assumed threat that men fearfully face from a woman's freedom - social, sexual and economic - is immense, and varies from culture to culture and nation to nation. Even though at the heart of the abortion debate, lies the freedom of a woman to choose, it is often wrapped in a moral or religious veil only to inflict guilt and deprivation, a means of taking away the shame from men and placing it on the women. There is no law on this planet that legislates what men can do or not do with their body. But there are a plethora of them when it comes to women.

This week in America there was a ban lifted on women serving in the armed forces. From here on women will be allowed to enter a battlefield with no strings attached. They will be allowed to do the killing, which for a long time has been only a man's prerogative. So now women can both give life and take life if they chose, but only with a gun. Still rape looms large over the American armed forces like a disease with no cure. And through out history rape has also been used as a weapon of choice by marauding armies. Maybe with women being involved things might be different.

Equality does not necessarily mean that women have to do everything that men can do. Equality means for women to have the unequivocal freedom in every way to decide what they want to do with their lives. But there is no doubt that the participation of women in every sphere of life creates a balance, that is so desperately needed if our planet and our species is to survive.

There is a perception that in the urban landscape of much of the world, women are on an equal footing. While this may be true for more and more women, draconian laws do affect them in their personal space. From menstrual pain, birthing pain to menopause, there is no question women have it harder than men. The reasoning behind making it even harder for them can only stem from a desire to dominate and feel power over.

As a father of two girls, I always tell my children they are no different in any respect and there is nothing they can't do, as long as they set their eyes on the prize. There is no doubt that there are challenges only they will face just because they have a vagina instead of a penis. But then again I am delighted by the fact that they will always have a nurturing quality that will give hope to this world, when all hope is gone.

I am currently making a documentary film about a man who built the first Thermo-Nuclear Weapon or the Hydrogen Bomb. In the many interviews we have done of scientists who were engaged in building these weapons of total annihilation, one question always arose. How is it that humanity has not blown itself to oblivion considering the number of nuclear weapons we have lying around the planet. Is it pure chance, good planning, deterrence or a miracle? An interesting and unorthodox answer came from an octogenarian worldly wise scientist.

He said "Because there are women in this world".

It is what it is.